Monday, May 10, 2021
May 10, 2021

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Camden: On being 18 and ready to vote

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When editors asked me to write about the 50th anniversary of the passage of 18-year-olds being able to vote, it was partly because as a baby boomer I was the only person available who remembers it happening.

When Congress passed the 26th Amendment on March 23, 1971, I was 17. By the time it was ratified on July 1, I was 18. Along with registering for the draft, which was obligatory, I could register to vote.

In my mind, the two were inextricably linked. People who were old enough to be drafted or enlist – and some of my high school classmates did enlist that summer after graduation – were old enough to vote. Full stop. End of argument.

Registering for the draft was pretty simple. Go to the Selective Service office, fill out a form with name, address and birth date, and get a card in the mail in a few weeks. Mine said I was 1-H, a temporary classification until I had a physical after my number was drawn in the lottery. Under penalty of law I was to keep my draft card with me at all times. I still have it.

Registering to vote also was simple. I went to the city hall in the suburb where I lived, filled out a registration form and showed the nice lady behind the counter my driver’s license to prove my age. I had to show my birth certificate two years earlier to get my license, so that proved I was old enough.

There were no questions about whether I was a citizen because I was a white kid in the suburbs, even if they suspected I might vote to overthrow the existing government. I was prepared to show my draft card, but she didn’t ask to see it. Darn.

I was anxious to vote, but there were no municipal or state elections where I lived in 1971, so I didn’t have a chance until the next year.

Some experts predicted the linkage between drafting people for the unpopular Vietnam War and lowering the voting age to 18 would lead to a tsunami at the polls in 1972 for the first presidential election where those young voters could cast a ballot. The heart of the baby boom, the pig in the python of American demographics, was going to be voting three years earlier.

Richard Nixon had claimed to have a secret plan for ending the war when he ran in 1968, but as 1972 approached the plan remained secret and Democrats were lining up to challenge him. Anti-war demonstrations were roiling college campuses that spring, and Sen. George McGovern won the nomination with a call to bring the troops home.

But demography is not destiny. McGovern ran a terrible campaign and Nixon ran a very good – although illegal – one.

Lowering the voting age to 18 actually led to a drop in turnout from which the country didn’t recover until 2004, said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University. The number of eligible young voters grew, but the percentage of voters under 25 who voted actually dropped.

“The youngest voters are always the least likely to vote,” Donovan said. “It’s a habit that’s learned.”

When the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, there was an even bigger drop in turnout – from 61 percent in 1916 to 42 percent in 1920 – because suddenly the number of eligible voters almost doubled overnight and not all women voted.

Turnout recovered relatively quickly after the 19th Amendment. Not so with the 26th Amendment. It continued to decline through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, possibly because there were more young people than old people.

The first uptick in voters 24 years old or younger was in 2004, possibly because the presidential campaigns made a big push to get out the young vote, Donovan said. By then, baby boomers who were the first to register when they turned 18 were in their 40s and 50s, a time when people are more likely to vote.

Turnout didn’t top 1968 until last year, when it hit 62 percent in part because of an increase in voting among 18- to 29-year olds. Considering I’ve been critical of millennial and Gen Z voter participation in the past, it seems now they’d be justified in saying “OK Boomer.”

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